“The South, My South”

“The South, My South”
Thoughts generated by Charlotte events, by Black Lives Matter, and by Reverend William Barber
Fall 2016.

I learned early and have never really stopped believing that white people who grow up in the South are less different from black people who grew up there than they are from both white and black people who grow up in the rest of the US.

Maybe I’m wrong in terms of how it works nationally for Black people. And surely, especially in the age of Trump, how this plays out is changing. But, in my experience, white and black southern people can never not notice race, never deny that their racial identity matters, for worse and for better.

Every white southern person still knows that she or he is white and that that makes a big difference. Some even consciously admit that they directly benefit from that whiteness; others feel that that their whiteness matters less than before, while still others imagine that they now suffer more from it due to political correctness, and Affirmative Action. But every southern white person recognizes that their white identity is a key “social fact” that determines much of who they are. That’s just how it is.

White people don’t talk about it among ourselves so much, for good reasons. For many of us, whether in all-white settings and in mixed race environments, our whiteness is not “brought up”, but it is always there. For white people who are immigrants, and/or new to the South, it is different. And of course, southern black people are always aware, for basic, life-protecting reasons.

Black Southerners know even more intensely that being black is critical for them. And that exploring what it means in their individual case, and for their family and community, is essential, even if they, as a friend once declared, are “…sometimes tired of being Black. Of course I’m proud now, and aware now of all the complexities. But still it gets tiring. Not just the “two-ness” Dubois talked about, but just the day-to-day awareness of it all.”

Sometimes I think that this has changed a lot since I left the South almost fifty years ago, but then I look at voting patterns, and social/surveys of political attitudes and I don’t see it. I speak with my sister, now in North Carolina, and it still seems that race matters there in different ways than it does here. A white friend’s daughter who lived in Atlanta for two years before moving back to Massachusetts, feels it.

So when I read news from Charlotte, Charleston, New Orleans and Florida, I know exactly why “Black Lives Matter” is still a more radical statement in the South than it is elsewhere. Just maybe not as different as I once would have thought.

Here when white people object to the phrase it is mostly because they want to assert that “ALL lives Matter.” In the South I fear that it is still true that for many white people, the underlying objection stems from an almost-conscious understanding that somehow

“White Lives Matter, and so do Black Lives.” But the voice is a white voice. The first perspective is White. The legitimate speaker about whose lives matter is, first and foremost, a white voice, not a black voice.

It all makes me listen with awe to Reverend William Barber, whose North Carolina based “Moral Mondays Movement” is so inspiring. He and the work he is doing around the US gives me hope. And his September 23 NYTimes Op-Ed statement about the Charlotte situation was so on target. See what you think:

” Why We Are Protesting in Charlotte
By WILLIAM BARBER ISEPT. 23, 2016 Charlotte, N.C.

Since a police officer shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday afternoon, the ensuing protests have dominated national news. Provocateurs who attacked police officers and looted stores made headlines. Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency, and the National Guard joined police officers in riot gear, making the Queen City look like a war zone.

Speaking on the campaign trail in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Donald J. Trump offered a grave assessment: “Our country looks bad to the world, especially when we are supposed to be the world’s leader. How can we lead when we can’t even control our own cities?” Mr. Trump seems to want Americans to believe, as Representative Robert Pittenger, a Republican whose district includes areas in Charlotte, told the BBC, that black protesters in the city “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.”

But Charlotte’s protests are not black people versus white people. They are not black people versus the police. The protesters are black, white and brown people, crying out against police brutality and systemic violence. If we can see them through the tear gas, they show us a way forward to peace with justice.

On Thursday, I joined 50 Charlotte-area clergy members who were on the streets this week. Yes, a few dozen provocateurs did damage property and throw objects at the police, after being provoked by the officers’ tear gas, rubber bullets and military-style maneuvers. But as we saw, thousands more have peacefully demonstrated against the institutional violence in their communities.

That systemic violence, which rarely makes headlines, creates the daily traumatic stress that puts our communities on edge, affecting both those of us who live

there and outside observers who often denounce “black-on-black” crime. We cannot have a grown-up conversation about race in America until we acknowledge the violent conditions engendered by government policy and police practice.

Anyone who is concerned about violence in Charlotte should note that no one declared a state of emergency when the city’s schools were resegregated, creating a school-to-prison pipeline for thousands of poor African-American children. Few voiced outrage over the damage caused when half a million North Carolinians were denied health insurance because the Legislature refused to expand Medicaid. When Charlotte’s poor black neighborhoods were afflicted with disproportionate law enforcement during the war on drugs, condemning a whole generation to bad credit and a lack of job opportunities, our elected representatives didn’t call it violence. When immigration officers raid homes and snatch undocumented children from bus stops, they don’t call it violence. But all of these policies and practices do violence to the lives of thousands of Charlotte residents.
As a pastor and an organizer, I do not condone violent protest. But I must join the Charlotte demonstrators in condemning the systemic violence that threatened Mr. Scott’s body long before an officer decided to use lethal force against him. And I must condemn the militarization of Charlotte by the authorities who do not want to address the fundamental concerns of protesters. For black lives to matter in encounters with the police, they must also matter in public policy.

The North Carolina N.A.A.C.P. has called for full transparency in the Scott case, including a Justice Department investigation. There are still many unanswered questions, which is why we demand that the governor release video from body cameras recording the shooting. And we want accountability for officers who did not have their body cameras on when they confronted Mr. Scott while he was waiting for his son to get off the school bus.

Our protests are about more than the Scott case. Every child on that bus — every person in Mr. Scott’s neighborhood — is subject to systemic violence every day, violence that will only increase if Mr. Trump and others continue to exploit the specter of violent protests for political gain.

We have seen this before. After the civil rights movement pushed this nation to face its institutionalized racism, we made significant efforts to address inequality through the war on poverty. We did not lose that war because we lacked resources or met insurmountable obstacles. We lost it because Richard M. Nixon’s “Southern strategy” played on white fears about black power by promising to “restore order” without addressing the root causes of unrest.

In the Scriptures, the prophet Jeremiah denounces false prophets for crying “peace, peace when there is no peace.” We cannot condemn the violence of a small minority of protesters without also condemning the overwhelming violence that millions suffer every day.

Instead, let’s look again at the vast, diverse majority of the protesters. This is what democracy looks like. We cannot let politicians use the protests as an excuse to back reactionary “law and order” measures. Instead, we must march and vote together for policies that will lift up the whole and ensure the justice that makes true peace possible.”


William Barber II, president of the North Carolina N.A.A.C.P., is a founder of the “Moral Monday” movement and the author of “The Third Reconstruction.”

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